This is my first post in a series on the metaphysics of race. There is a list of all the posts in the series, with links.
I've wanted for a long time to do a blog series on the metaphysics of race, which is my primary area of research. This is what I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation on, which has now been published as a book and has entered the current discussion among philosophers on race. I've been teaching this issue since 2004, and I've finally gotten to a point where I have a set of readings that I really like for introductory classes, and the main content I teach has coalesced into a stable form that I am using every semester now instead of trying something, getting frustrated by it, and not trying it again for a few semesters. I'm finally getting around to turning it into a blog series, because the covid-19 distance learning required me to type up my class lectures into a presentable form, so I now have a set of written materials that I can convert into a bloggable format. So here we go.
There are a number of philosophical issues related to race, but the topic here is the metaphysics of race, which just means looking at the nature of what (if anything) race is. In philosophy, metaphysics is just the nature of reality. It looks at questions about what kinds of things there are and what we can say about them. Metaphysics includes whether God exists, what kind of being God is if God does exist, whether we have immaterial souls that could survive death, whether we have free will and if so what free will even is, whether free will is compatible with being predetermined or with an omniscience being knowing what we will do, whether time travel is possible, the nature of space and time, whether a computer or AI can understand or be conscious, what it means for one thing to cause another thing, and lots of other important questions worth thinking about philosophically. Is a hole, a ditch, or a dent a real thing? Or is it just the absence of certain things or some other thing being formed in a certain way? Is there something about the nature of reality that explains why moral truths are true? These are all metaphysical questions.
But metaphysics also includes a number of questions that we sometimes classify under social philosophy, such as what it means to fall under the category of being a man or being a woman. Questions of sex, gender, gender identity, and gender expression are metaphysical questions (ones with serious ethical implications, but whether a transwoman is a woman is a metaphysical question, and which pronouns we should use for a transgender person or how we should treat such a person are ethical questions; some questions of social philosophy are metaphysics, and some are ethics, and what you say about some of those questions might affect what you say about others). What it means to have a disability and whether that means something is missing or distorted that ought to be present but is not involves metaphysical questions. Are all differences mere differences, or is there some aspect of reality that makes certain differences worse in some sense? Are there certain ways of being that are worse or better than other ways of being? These are all metaphysical questions about the social realm, involving questions about the nature of the categories we use, such as sex, gender, or disability.
So what about race? We can ask what sort of thing races are, assuming they even exist. Are there even such things as races? If so how would we figure out what kind of things they are? Those are the fundamental questions in the metaphysics of race.
There have been three main approaches to this question since philosophers started applying their concepts to the subject, which wasn’t all that long ago. The first attempt in recent times that I’m aware of by a philosopher was the early 1990s by Kwame Anthony Appiah, although others had used philosophical categories to answer this question long before that, and philosophers of earlier times did explicitly raise this question. In the most famous cases, they did so through lenses that most of us would now consider pretty distorted. Before Appiah, English-speaking philosophy as a whole would probably not even have seen this as a philosophical question and certainly would not have wanted to treat it as metaphysics. Even now, it's probably not going to be found in most lists of metaphysical questions, although most philosophers now recognize it to be a genuinely philosophical question. But most would see it not as a fundamental question of metaphysics but as a question of applied metaphysics, the same way theories about what morality is all about would be ethical theory and then questions about abortion might be applied ethics. But if you go back a couple hundred years, the 20th century exclusion of questions of race from philosophy would seem strange. Immanuel Kant was perhaps the most influential philosopher in continental Europe in his time, and he spent many pages writing about race. Indeed, many historians of the race concept place him as one of the most important thinkers to have developed the modern concept of race.
The three main approaches metaphysicians of race today present are the biological realist view, the social realist view, and the anti-realist view. Biological realism and social realism about races both accept the existence of races as real entities, but they disagree on what sort of thing they think races are. Biological realists take races to be naturally occurring, biological categories. Social realists think there are no such biological races, but they think races are real nonetheless. They are instead social entities, created by social forces and determined by such things as how we as a society end up classifying people. By contrast, anti-realists just think racial language doesn’t refer to anything at all. It’s a mistake to think there are races to begin with.
So I will proceed to look at each of these views. I will start with what I call the classic biological approach, which was the main view until about early-mid 20th century. The discovery of DNA and subsequent thought about species and sub-species basically eliminated the class biological approach among those who understood and were influenced by science. Anti-realism dominated for most of the second half of the 20th century and was perhaps the most prominent approach among the first philosophers to go back to including this issue in their discussions, but late 20th century arguments for a social realist view, which takes to be real but not biological, eventually led to that view dominating both in the social sciences and in philosophy once philosophers went back to looking at the question. A few biological approaches developed in the 1990s but didn't catch on, but a new one developed in the last 20 years that has become a viable view at this point, and we will see how that new biological approach relates to social realism (and why the two might even be compatible). But next up is the classic biological racial realist position.
Implicit bias is a well-documented phenomenon. Careful studies have shown lots of lots of implicit biases that we have. Most of them are only tiny. The effects are demonstrable but not huge. If we are evaluating a resume, we are slightly more likely to see someone with a name that we expect to be black to be less competent than we would if we saw the same resume with a name attached to it that we would not have any racial associations with (and thus we might assume the person to be white). Police officers are slightly more likely to see a cell phone or wallet as a gun if the person holding it has darker skin. These biases are just as present, or nearly as present, in populations affected by these stereotypes. For example, black police officers have a similar bias to that of white police officers in the case I just described.
If the effects are tiny, why do we care? Because the effect is demonstrable when you look at lots and lots of cases. Implicit biases can explain disproportionate effects without relying on accusing the people involved of being racists. They just have the biases that we all have. Certain groups have a stigma attached to them, and it lowers our expectations that someone in that group will be as competent. This stereotype affects members of that group as much as it affects everyone else. In fact, all it takes is knowing that the stereotype exists, and you are likely to display this implicit bias. Nor does it occur in a lower frequency among those with a more progressive agenda. Believing the stereotypes to be false does not help remove the bias, although being more intimately connected relationally with people who are in the stigmatized group can sometimes help reduce some of these biases.
None of this is new. Psychologists have been aware of this for several decades and have been publishing careful work refining our understanding of what's going on throughout that time. But every once in a while I see something about an implicit bias that goes along surprising lines or stems from more complex causes. I have found one that deals with a stereotype within a stereotype. I was directed to one a while back that is very interesting but not quite in the way it's described in the article. The headline suggests that it shows that women and minorities are punished for caring about diversity. If that means anyone is deliberately punishing them, then it's completely the wrong idea. If it just means there is an implicit bias against women and minorities who care about diversity, that's much closer to what they have found. But I think the explanation they offer for this is very unlikely to be correct, and what seems to me to be a more likely explanation involves a very interesting hierarchy of embedded biases.
I’m part of a Facebook group that discusses the teaching of philosophy, and every once in a while someone says something that I really want to comment on, but it would move enough away from the conversation and be very long and just feel out of place. I found myself writing a very long comment this morning about something that I think should be preserved, but I ended up not posting it to that conversation, because it’s really off point and probably wouldn’t be appropriate to pick out one side comment and turn it into a lengthy issue. But I think what I have to say about it is worth posting, so here it is.
The conversation was about a student who engaged in inappropriate behavior in class to support (but not actually defend) his view that morality is connected with religion. He actually stood up and looked around at the class to assert his view, as if he could win people over by the sheer force of saying it. One of the commenters pointed out that movies like God Is Not Dead probably fuel perceptions of a liberal and secular bias in philosophy classes, and to someone who has seen that movie and has no familiarity with philosophy they might think philosophy classes are actually like that and see this kind of behavior as an appropriate response. (Hint: philosophy classes are usually nothing like what that movie portrays, and this kind of behavior is totally inappropriate in a philosophy class.)
Someone else came along and mentioned a case where her insistence on using proper terminology led to a student’s parents accusing her of inappropriate bias in her teaching. That’s unfortunate when that happens, and I actually think in the case these parents were pushing back against they were wrong. But the case started from something preventable that I think would predictably lead to that perception in a lot of people.
Several politically right commentators have criticized Hillary Clinton's recent remarks about implicit bias, charging her with expressing her own bigotry in the process. See, for example, the Federalist and the Weekly Standard. A quick Google search turns up several others. When I first saw this, I thought it was a big of a lapse, given how quickly the right turned to the defense of Juan Williams when he was fired by NPR for basically saying the same sort of thing about people dressed in Muslim garb in airports. (See similar Google search for him.)
Williams admitted to an unconscious bias at airports when he sees people who he expects to be the more common demographic to be terrorists. He expressed some regret about this, clearly indicating that he thought something was unfortunate about being that way, but he said it's sort of understandable how people end up being fearful in that way. He was fired from NPR for being a bigot.
Clinton comes along and describes the implicit bias many white people have against young black men in hoodies. She says it's honest, open-minded, well-meaning people who have this fear, which is certainly true. That's what makes it implicit bias. It happens even among those who don't want it to, who oppose racism with every moral fiber they have. In context, it's clear that she's saying this is something that needs to change. She's not saying this is a good thing. But these critics latch on to it to insist that she must feel this fear herself, as if that somehow would make her hypocritical and a complete bigot worthy of condemnation (in a way that Williams apparently was not, at least the way many of the right acted at the time).
The point of both Williams and Clinton is that this is something unfortunate that our psychological makeup leads us to do, and it's something that ideally we should seek to change, but it's nonetheless part of how we experience race in this country. There's bad there, and there's something normal about it. Both are true. There might be slightly different nuances between the two cases, but I find it hard to believe that there's enough difference between the two cases to justify such radically different treatment. (And I'd be shocked not to find the mirror image of the right's treatment as the left begins to defend her, despite many of them having criticized Williams for saying the same thing.)
It's not hypocritical for an anti-racist to point out that they probably have implicit bias and wish that were otherwise, expressing a desire to try to find ways to deal with that. I don't have a lot of confidence that either Juan Williams or Hillary Clinton would have a lot of good things to say about what a positive response to it would be, and that's not because of their political views or anything like that. I don't expect politicians or political commentators to have much to say of value on the subject. Psychologists and psychologically-informed philosophers might have some things to say that are worth listening to, but no one has a lot of interesting and helpful suggestions about this particular problem. The best work on it shows that it forms at a very young age and doesn't really go away. Most of the ways people come up with to deal with it are very temporary or very gradual, and the best help for it is to have a more integrated society (especially at the most intimate levels of friendships and relationships). That's a good reason not to make a speech about it, as if there are a bunch of policies politicians can implement that will change this. But it's not hypocritical to do so. What is hypocritical to treat these two differently unless you can point to something that explains why he's heroic and she's evil for saying the same thing (or vice versa, for any who might defend her after having seen Williams as a bigot).
Some of the early reports about yesterday's report from the Vatican conference on family issues seem to me to betray a serious misunderstanding of Catholic teaching on these issues. In the NPR story I just linked, we see two views being put into contrast that I don't think any Catholic who understands the concepts involved would recognize as being in conflict. On the one hand, Catholics have long taught that homosexuality and same-sex sexual relationships are intrinsically disordered, and Catholics insist on the wrongness of any sexual relations outside marriage. On the other hand, this report speaks of Catholic communities "accepting and valuing their sexual orientation" and "positive aspects to a couple living together without being married". It all depends on the context and what is meant by these expressions, but I see no reason yet to take these in a way that contradicts anything in Catholic teaching.
The crucial element is the concept of intrinsic disordering. If something is intrinsically disordered, it means that the good in the relationship is put together wrongly in some way. It means either something is missing, or the parts are not working together the way they ought to. But the concept of intrinsic disordering requires there to be some good, since intrinsic disordering means something is less good, as opposed to some positive evil being introduced, which is impossible on an Augustinian conception of evil that serves as the basis of the notion of intrinsic disordering.
You can't have something intrinsically disordered that doesn't have some positive good. No positive good means no existence. Intrinsic disordering means a disordering of positive good. That means there is positive good. And that means this change in emphasis isn't a change in doctrine, if all it's saying is that there is some positive good in same-sex relationships and in unmarried couples living together (implying sexual relations).
In particular, you can think value all manner of things about a same-sex relationship: you can recognize the good in a couple's self-sacrifice for each other, the good in their parenting of any children they might have, the good in the degree to which they fulfill their desire for companionship, even some level of good in the sexual pleasure they provide each other. You can do that even if you think the relationship itself is immoral and if you think they're seeking the wrong object to fulfill sexual desires and the wrong ways of fulfilling their companionship needs. You couldn't think they are good in every respect, but you have to think there is some good there, or else there would be nothing. That follows from the very notion of intrinsic disordering.
Similarly, the Catholic church holds that there are good things in opposite-sex sexual relationships between unmarried people. Catholic doctrine declares such relationships immoral. There is a difference in that they're not disordered in terms of the object of sexual desire (or at least in terms of the sex of the object of sexual desire). But there's plenty of intrinsic disordering of a different sort in those relationships (e.g. the marital status of the two people, which is an issue to do with the object of one's desire, just not about the person's sex). Most importantly, the person and relationship are placed on a higher level than God, because they refuse to honor God's command to marry before having sex. That is an intrinsic disordering, since it demonstrates one's desires are not well-ordered, which is what virtue is on an Augustinian view. Any sin is an intrinsic disordering, since it involves a disordering within one's desires. That assumes some good in the desiring and in the fulfillment. Otherwise there would be no desiring or fulfillment.
Compare the intrinsic disordering of a shoe fetish. What's disordered about that is that shoes are not an appropriate object of sexual desire. Homosexuality, by contrast, involves a desire for a human being. Human beings are the appropriate objects of human sexual desire in general, even if there is some intrinsic disordering when it involves same-sex desires. That means there's something good about same-sex desire that isn't present for the shoe fetish. It's not clear to me that the Catholic statement is doing anything more than acknowledging things like that. That's compatible with thinking same-sex relationships are intrinsically disordered to the point of being immoral. I think people who don't have a view like the Catholic view will be inclined to think that anyone who thinks homosexuality is intrinsically disordered must think it the height of all evil, with nothing redeemable or good about it, but that's simply not what the view holds. Many who hold the Catholic view might not see this, but there's a difference between how proponents of a view understand it and what the official view is, at least when you're talking about a view held by those who believe their views come from some authoritative source. (The No True Scotsman fallacy is simply not an issue when you have an authoritative person, text, or organization that determines what the official view is. There is a genuine Catholic position, and those who don't hold that view do not hold the Catholic view.)
There may be a different emphasis here, but it's not at odds with thinking the relationship is intrinsically disordered anymore than the idea that it's good to support our troops is at odds with being opposed to a particular conflict they've been fighting in. So don't believe anyone claiming that this is a change in Catholic doctrine. It's not a conflict or departure from the concept of intrinsic disordering. It in fact brings to the fore something that follows from the notion of intrinsic disordering. Perhaps that's something that those who believe homosexuality is intrinsically disordered should be emphasizing more. But it's not a new position. It even follows from the idea of intrinsic disordering. Anyone claiming the two are at odds simply doesn't understand what it means to be intrinsically disordered, or they couldn't think that.
I've several times now run across a new linguistic trend, mostly among a certain brand of academic. When writing about people we would normally call slaves, the new trend is to call them "enslaved people". I assume the reasoning here is because we don't want to define someone by their enslavement, as if it's an identity-forming feature of their existence, and we shouldn't let someone in one of the most oppressive situations be defined by something entirely outside their control that has demeaning connotations. In that way, it reflects some of the concerns of person-first language, which I've usually encountered in the context of disabilities.
[See my critique of person-first language. It's a bit over-the-top, as most satire is. The sense you get from it about what my views must be is not quite what they are. I'm not completely opposed to person-first language, and I even think sometimes it's the best way to go in certain settings. I would say that with small children it's far better to speak that way, whereas with older children and adults it's best to help them understand the categories we in fact use while drawing attention to the ways we illegitimately think about those categories and ways we process them unconsciously and thus denigrate the people we're talking about without always being aware of it.]
But this is different. For one thing, this isn't person-first language. Person-first language would not speak of enslaved people. It would speak of people with enslavement or people encumbered by, trapped by, oppressed by, or otherwise affected by enslavement. Person-first language is so roundabout, awkward, and unworkable that even those tempted to apply it in this case have actually refused to go that far. They will avail themselves of adjectives rather than nouns and use the adjectives to modify the noun 'people' or 'person'. It's grammatically parallel to "deaf people" or "autistic people" rather than "people without hearing" or "people with autism". But it's certainly a step in the direction of person-first language when compared with calling people slaves. The only grammatical equivalent is to speak of the deaf with no noun or to talk about people with autism as autists. [I should note that that's a bad idea even if there weren't any other problems with the term, because people will just think you're from Brooklyn or the Bronx and talking about people with very creative abilities and outlets.]
But there are differences, and I think some of them matter morally. One is that ordinary language does allow for slaves, and "enslaved people" is awkward, whereas "autistic people" or "people with autism" are both common, while "autists" is not. Another is that it's generally accepted that calling someone an autist is unacceptable, and it's at least not generally unacceptable to call someone who is enslaved a slave. That's not the only issue, but that's a difference. For example, it was much worse to call people retarded once that became a standard insult for people without any cognitive disabilities than it was when it was the accepted term and had not yet been used as an insult. Whether it was a good term ever is something people can debate, but surely it's made worse once it becomes used as an insult. So the fact that a lot of people do oppose a way of speaking does count more against it, and the fact that many people approve of a way of speaking does mean there's less to count against it, whatever else is true.
Another difference is that one is a disability and the other is an imposed condition. Both are involuntary, at least in most cases of slavery. Slavery can be accepted voluntary, especially in cases of indentured servanthood, selling oneself into slavery to pay off a debt, or accepting slavery to avoid a death penalty (well, that's at least not completely involuntary, although it's not actually a range of choices that anyone would consider sufficient for the choice to be fully voluntary). But one is known, at least by most people today, to be something that is not central to who one is but rather imposed. No one today, at least no one I personally know, thinks that anyone who is a slave is the sort of person whose slavery is necessary because they couldn't otherwise function in life. No one thinks slaved naturally deserve slavery. No one thinks it's part of a slave's nature to be a slave.
This is not true with racial categorizations. As much as we might discover scientifically about how there isn't all that much difference between different racial groups, we do process racial categories with stigmatized stereotypes, and scientific studies for decades now have consistently shown that these stereotypes and stigmatized categories will affect how we treat people, at least in small ways that most of us don't pick up on (and especially in situations where we're tired or busy and have to make decisions quickly without thinking carefully about them). This isn't true of the category "slave" even if it is true of other contingent categories. If I find out someone is a slave, I'm not going to process that the way I do if I find out they receive welfare, are homeless, or grew up in a ghetto. Whether I want to or not, I will make assumptions about the person if I discover they're in one of those other categories, and I won't if I find out someone had kidnapped and enslaved them. We're distant enough from the 19th-century practice of slavery (and what does go on today is both under the radar and officially disapproved of) that we just don't respond that way anymore.
So one of the important reasons for avoiding linguistic constructions that serve to foster innatist, essentialist thinking (which really only matters with small children anyway, according to the most careful psychological studies) does not matter with slavery. That means any argument for preferring "enslaved people" to "slaves" must have to do with how people in those categories would perceive it, not how others will be influenced by speaking or hearing the construction. And I suspect the same debate that occurs with disability would crop up here. People who prefer "person with autism" are usually parents, teachers, and psychologists who want to encourage not defining someone by the disability and who want others to respect them as people, taking their interests and desires as important, assuming competence first before assuming incompetence, and other essential features of treating someone as a person. Yet one can do that while using the word "autistic" as an adjective.
The other side is usually from people who have the condition who have the communication skills to express their view on the matter. They in fact prefer to be called "autistic" as an adjective, just as the deaf community generally prefers to be called "deaf" and thinks person-first language is insulting. Why is that? Because they see their condition (which they don't always see merely as a disability, because it involves both impairments and increased abilities) as something very important to who they are. It shouldn't define them as if it's the only thing that matters, but it is part of how they've formed their identity, just as race is for anyone who isn't in the dominant majority racial group in their social location. White people in the U.S. don't see whiteness as part of their identity, because it's part of white privilege not to be affected by race is ways that make you constantly think about those categories. Most members of other racial groups in the U.S. do consider their race to inform their sense of their own identity in significant enough ways that they wouldn't want people not to think of them according to those categories, as the dishonest color-blind ideal (does anyone really think they can pretend not to see race?) would have it.
How should this affect calling people "slaves" vs. "enslaved people"? Well, not having the chance to interview a bunch of people in that category, I just have to guess, but my suspicion is that it's going to be like race and disability, at least in terms of how they think of their identity while enslaved. It's pretty all-defining of what their life is. I can't see how that wouldn't be identity-forming. It's certainly more easily removed than the other cases I've been discussing, and that's why we can speak of people as former slaves. But that linguistic option show that we can handle the contingency of the category while still availing ourselves of the ordinary way of speaking, and there is at least some moral argument for retaining the category rather than abandoning it, which gives me little reason to want to engage in a major effort to revise our language in a pretty large way.
I've discovered the need to adopt a new way of speaking about people who are recently-descended from Africans. We've learned in the last couple decades that we ought to emphasize someone's personhood above any other characteristic, and thus it's thoroughly immoral to use any adjective in front of 'person'. We need to use predicate nouns instead. We no longer have sad people, for example. We simply have people with sadness. We no longer have short people. We have people with shortness. We don't want to define people with sadness as if their sadness is more important than their personhood, so we have a moral obligation to put the noun form after the word 'person'. Grammar does always indicate metaphysics, after all.
One sphere of language in which this lesson has never been properly applied is in the area of race. Why are we still talking about black people, for instance? Do we really want to define people solely in terms of their race? Do we really want to signal that their blackness is so central to who they are that we're going to pretend that people with blackness aren't people? If we call them black people, then we are treating their blackness as if it's a greater part of our conception of people with blackness than their personhood is. People with person-firstness have instructed us that we should never put disability-related adjectives in front of a noun or pronoun referring to a person, because we don't want them identified with that condition. But we've also learned from the same people that having a disability is not negative, which means this policy is not because disabilities are bad. Therefore, we ought to apply it to other cases when something is not bad but might wrongly be taken by someone to be bad, just as we would apply it to things that are genuinely bad. If race is not to be a negative, then I am not a white person. I'm a person with whiteness. It does make it a little awkward to speak of people with Asianness or people with Australian-first-people-ness (i.e. what used to be called aboriginalness). But it's worth the awkwardness of expression to avoid any chance of identifying them with the racial or ethnic group whose membership they possess.
Even worse, it's especially pernicious to say that someone is black (or African-American or whatever racial term we might choose). After all, using predicate adjectives amounts to making identity statements rather than merely ascribing a property to someone the way we would have thought that adjectives in English, even predicate adjectives, do. It's much more preferable to say that someone has blackness than to say that she is black. People aren't anything except persons. I'm not philosophical. I have philosophicalness. Glenn Beck is not unfair to his political adversaries. He has unfairness to the people who have political adversariness with him. President Obama is not bad at speaking without a teleprompter. He has badness at speaking without a teleprompter. I shouldn't say that I am Christian. I'm a person who has Christianity. I shouldn't be identified with my faith. I should claim, rather, to possess the entirety of Christianity, as if it belongs to me. We need to avoid identifying people with any property ascribed to them other than personhood. It's much better to say that they possess the entirety of the thing that formerly we would have used to describe them.
For more explanation, please see here (except you can ignore the sections explaining how people with blindness and people with deafness have offendedness at the obviously-correct way to refer to them, and you certainly shouldn't read person-with-autism Jim Sinclair's reasons for disliking person-first language).
Jeremy Pierce is a philosophy professor, Uber/Lyft driver, and father of five.